Takahashi Aims to Make Most of Renewed Shot at Olympic Qualifying

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO --- For the second time, a former world champion in Japan whose dream of making it to the Tokyo Olympics had all but crushed, found it suddenly revived through a twist of fate over which they had no control.

Yuki TAKAHASHI (JPN) will get a chance that he never thought would come to qualify Japan for the Tokyo Olympics at freestyle 57kg when he takes the mat at the Final World Olympic Qualifying Tournament on May 6-9 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The opportunity arose when Rio 2016 Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI (JPN) surprisingly failed to make weight at the Asian Olympic qualifier held in early April in Almaty. The Japan federation decided soon after to dispatch Takahashi to Sofia.

"Honestly speaking, as an athlete I was happy that the chance came my way," the 27-year-old Takahashi said during a recent online press conference with the Japanese media. "Up to now, the coronavirus pushed everything back and it was difficult for me to keep going. At times I thought, 'What am I doing this for?'"

Takahashi, who had figured his fate would be decided at the time that Higuchi either made the final in Almaty or didn't, instead got the news much earlier.  He said he was eating lunch with his wife when he was informed that Higuchi had been disqualified.

"It was like a dream," the 2017 world champion said. "It was a Sunday and I had the day off. I was relaxing and eating when the news came. But I can't suddenly rush into things and change gears. I need to go at my own pace and start preparing."

Takahashi faces a substantially higher hurdle to overcome than the one cleared by Yui SUSAKI (JPN), the former two-time world champion who secured a Tokyo berth in the women's 50kg division at Almaty.

For one thing, Susaki had just four other entrants in the Asian qualifier from which the top two earned tickets to Tokyo; Takahashi could have as many as 26 rivals in Sofia, based on the preliminary entry list, for the same number of spots.

On top of that, even if he finishes in the top two, Takahashi will then have to face Higuchi in a playoff for the Tokyo Olympics ticket later in May. But it's a situation that he has accepted.

"I'm the [original] loser, so even if I win [in Sofia], it doesn't decide things yet," Takahashi said. "It can't be helped, that's the rule. It's quite clear."

Takahashi lost out to Higuchi for a place on the team to the Rio Olympics, but came back later that year to win his first national title. In 2017, he made his mark globally, triumphing at the Asian Championships before winning the gold at the World Championships in Paris. He followed that with a bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships in Budapest.

But Takahashi's Olympic hopes went awry at the 2019 World Championships in Nursultan, where a medal would have clinched a place for Japan and himself at the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, a fourth-round loss left him in 10th place and empty-handed on all counts.

Meanwhile, Higuchi had dropped back to 57kg after going up a weight class after Rio and then making an unsuccessful run at qualifying for Tokyo at 65kg (although he won the world U-23 gold in that weight class along the way).

With the right to fight for the Olympic place in the Asian qualifier on the line, Higuchi defeated Takahashi in the final of the All-Japan Championships in December 2019.

Even with year delay, the odds were certainly in Higuchi's favor --- three Asian nations had earned 57kg berths in Nursultan, and there were just nine entries. But not even making it to the mat was a development nobody had  foreseen.

Higuchi's misfortune became a gift for Takahashi, who had started a new job as a coach at his alma mater Yamanashi Gakuin University in April after leaving the wrestling team at security company ALSOK.

Up to then, Takahashi had found it difficult to remain motivated, although the competitive juices flowed again at the All-Japan Championships in December last year, where a victory put him first in line if Higuchi faltered in Almaty.

"While I was practicing, I never knew if I would be able to take part [in the qualifiers]," Takahashi said. "It was not so much that I gave up hope as my heart just wasn't in it. I went though the usual routine in practice, but I didn't care.

"I got back into it at the All-Japan Championships because it was competition again. I think it was important to have that change of heart."

Takahashi acknowledged that the Olympics were always in the back of his mind as he toiled away over the past year, helplessly waiting for the door to either reopen or be permanently closed.

"Of course I kept it in mind," he said. "Nobody could say there was zero possibility. In sports, you don't know what will happen. I kept going with the notion to never give up to the end."

While he has had to take a circuitous and uncertain path to keep his Olympic dream alive, Takahashi feels the setbacks along the way have made him stronger.

"I hit rock bottom," he said. "Aside from someone dying, there can't be a more painful experience in a lifetime. But it's become a strong point for me. I've never thought of myself as unlucky. In  life there are good times and bad, and if I go to the Tokyo Olympics and I am successful, that will be good."

To get there, he will need to defeat some equally determined opponents. Among those on the preliminary list, the one who stands out is Reineri ANDREU ORTEGA (CUB), a two-time World U-23 champion who placed third at the Pan American Olympic qualifying tournament.

Takahashi beat Andreu Ortega in two previous meetings, both in 2018 and both close matches. The Japanese came out on top 7-5 in a clash at that year's World Cup, then again 5-4 in the bronze-medal match at the World Championships.

Others expected to be in the running are 2018 European champion Giorgi EDISHERASHVILI (AZE), 2018 Asian Games gold medalist Bekhbayar ERDENEBAT (MGL) and Muhamad IKROMOV (TJK), the 2020 Asian silver medalist at 61kg who finished third in the Asian Olympic qualifier.

"Japan is traditionally strong in the lightweight classes and I've added a few medals myself," Takahashi said. "I will fight with a feeling of responsibility, and stay relaxed and do my style of wrestling. If I properly prepare, I can come out on top."

When the call came and the national team coach told Takahashi, "It's your turn," the main concern was whether a little more than three weeks was enough time to get ready. Even though he had been practicing all that time, it is different than working toward peaking at a tournament.

"I've never had this experience," Takahashi said. "But I knew it was possible. It's always been that if Higuchi didn't produce a result at the Asian qualifier, I could be going. It was only natural that I was preparing. There's no extra burden to getting in shape."

Asked how he would describe his current condition, he replied, "It's not bad, it's not great. It just as usual. Now that I've been selected to be sent to the tournament, I have put all my worries behind and can focus."

Takahashi said his new job as coach at Yamanashi Gakuin has given him a fresh perspective on the sport. Yamanashi Gakuin is one of Japan's collegiate powerhouses, and among its many decorated alumni is 2018 world champion Takuto OTOGURO, who has already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at freestyle 65kg.

"For me, it's really a change," Takahashi said. "When I was at ALSOK, I could think only of myself. But when you become a coach, you must keep in contact with the students."

His new situation really hit home when the JOC Cup, a junior-level tournament that includes younger collegians, was recently canceled due a surge in the coronavirus that led to Tokyo declaring a state of emergency for the third time since the start of the pandemic.

"It was a qualifier for the world junior and Asian junior championships," he said. "As a wrestler, I would have been thinking, 'What am I doing this for?' But now, my thinking has to be, how should we proceed with wrestling? What kind of advice can I give them? It's really made me think."

As a active wrestler, Takahashi also keeps in mind the importance of leading by example.

"They see the position I am in now and the tough times that I had to go through," he said. "What I want to tell them is, if you don't give up, your chance will come. Not through words, but through your actions."

Coming home with an Olympic berth for his country would provide the perfect example of making the most of an opportunity.


Iran crowns trio of U20 world champs, wins team title

By Vinay Siwach

SOFIA, Bulgaria (August 21) -- When Alireza MOHMADIPIANI (IRI) was in Bulgaria last time, he was wrestling at his first senior tournament at the Dan Kolov in Sofia. Mohmadipiani finished with a bronze medal after losing the semifinal to European silver medalist Gela BOLKVADZE (GEO) in the semifinal.

Despite the loss, Mohmadipiani took home a lesson from the loss of being on the attack from the word go in a bout.

He used a similar strategy in the 82kg final against '21 U17 world champion Achiko BOLKVADZE (GEO) to win the gold medal at the U20 World Championships in Sofia.

Mohmadipiani was one of the three gold medalists for Iran on Sunday as the latest edition of the U20 World Championships came to an end with Iran winning the Greco-Roman title with 174 points. Azerbaijan finished second with 119 points while Ukraine managed to jump to third with 93 points.

The two other gold medals on Sunday were captured by wrestlers from Azerbaijan. A historic bronze medal was also won by Richard KARELSON (EST), becoming the first-ever medalist from the country at U20 Worlds.

For Iran, Mohmadipiani had the most convincing victory even though he faced one of the most accomplished wrestlers entered in the competition.

18-year-old Bolkvadze began aggressively against Mohmadipiani but lost some steam as the bout went on. He was called passive and Mohmadipiani failed to get a turn. But 20 seconds later, Mohmadipiani got him into a body lock and pushed him to the mat to get four points.

In the second period, Bolkvadze got the opportunity to level scores but he failed to get any points from par terre.

Bolkvadze struggled to keep up with the pace of the bout and the referee warned him for blocking. On the second warning, he was cautioned with two points. Mohmadipiani got the win when Bolkvadze received his second caution and two points.

"Bolkvadze is a good wrestler and he won a gold medal last year [at U17," Mohmadipiani said. "I won the Asian Championships. So great bout but I won against him at the end."

With the U20 title in the bag, the Iran youngster is hoping to quickly move to seniors from next year onwards. But he knows the challenge that comes with it.

"The weight class has many good wrestlers," he said. "We have Azerbaijan [Rafig HUSEYNOV] and Turkey [Burhan AKBUDAK] but I'm well trained and I think I can win.”

Saeid ESMAEILI (IRI)Saeid ESMAEILI (IRI) defeated Suren AGHAJANYAN (ARM) in the 60kg final. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

At 60kg, Saeid ESMAEILI (IRI) had all but lost the gold to Suren AGHAJANYAN (ARM) as he trailed 6-2 with 22 seconds left in the final. But Esmaeili got his hands around Aghajanyan’s waist before moving into a bearhug and he secured a four-point throw to win 6-6.

Aghajanyan scored exposure from par terre to lead 3-2 before Esmaeili scored a takedown on the edge just before the break.

In the second period, Esmaeili worked more but there was no passivity call as Aghajanyan scored two stepouts to lead 5-2.

Esmaeili tried going for a takedown but his hands moved below the Aghajanyan’s waist and the move was illegal. Iran challenged the call but lost. It seemed that the final was all locked up when the U20 Asian champion stunned Aghajanyan, and the crowd with the throw to take the criteria lead.

Ali ABEDIDARZI (IRI)Ali ABEDIDARZI (IRI) scored six stepout points against Iussuf MATSIYEV (KAZ) in the 97kg final. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

The third gold medal for Iran came in emphatic fashion as Ali ABEDIDARZI (IRI) won the 97kg weight class over Iussuf MATSIYEV (KAZ).

Matsiyev took a 4-0 lead with a stepout and turn from par terre and Abedidarzi was struggling to get going with his attacks. But just before the break, he scored two stepouts and Matsiyev was hit with caution for fleeing.

Abedidarzi scored three more stepouts in the second period to claim the lead 5-4. When Matsiyev was called passive, Abedidarzi continued the bout from standing and scored three points to win 9-4.

Kanan ABDULLAZADE (AZE)Kanan ABDULLAZADE (AZE) won the gold at 67kg after beating Nika BROLADZE (GEO). (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

Azerbaijan won the remaining two gold medals as Kanan ABDULLAZADE (AZE) won the 67kg weight class while Gurban GURBANOV (AZE) won at 72kg.

Abdullazade wrestled Nika BROLADZE (GEO) in the final and fell when the latter took the 1-1 criteria lead. Broladze planned to keep the lead until the end of the six minutes but Abdullazade scored a stepout with a minute and 13 seconds left.

Broladze, with time running out, tried to throw Abdullazade but both wrestlers fell with no control. But in the same sequence, Abdulladze managed to run around and score a go-behind to extend his lead to 4-1 for the win.

Gurban GURBANOV (AZE)Gurban GURBANOV (AZE) celebrates after emerging as the champion at 72kg. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

Gurbanov had a similar script for his final as he defeated Alexandru SOLOVEI (MDA), 4-0, in the 72kg final. Perhaps he did not plan to get the first passivity point but Solovei was called passive and forced into par terre.

The former U17 world champion got the turn using a gut wrench to lead 3-0 at the break. He then continued to wrestle aggressively in the second period and Solovei was again called passive. This time Gurbanov did not get the turn but the score read 4-0.

Solovei got his chance to score when the third passivity was called against Gurbanov but Solovei had nothing left in him to turn the Azerbaijan wrestler.

Richard KARELSON (EST)Richard KARELSON (EST), blue, won Estonia's first-ever medal at U20 World Championships. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

Estonia’s historic medal

No Estonia Greco-Roman wrestler even won a medal at the U20 Worlds but Richard KARELSON (EST) changed that on Sunday as he won a bronze medal in the 97kg weight class after beating Roman BALCHIVSCHII (MDA), 8-0, in the bronze medal bout.

In June, Karelson had become the first U20 European champion from Estonia in Greco-Roman. He was the second ever Estonian Greco-Roman wrestler to enter the final.

Incidentally, his father is also named Richard.

“It’s a great feeling,” Karelson said. “I hope I can work on this and win at the U23 Worlds as well. I know that the competition will be harder than this.

Karelson's father was the one who forced his son into wrestling after he was growing too fast.

In the previous two U20 Worlds, Karelson had finished 15th in Ufa and 12th in Tallin, his hometown. But with the bronze medal in Sofia, Karelson hopes he can lift his performance moving forward.

"The U20 European gold and this bronze medal will help me get some funds," he said. "Now I hope to continue this performance and train more."

With the U17 and U20 behind, the action now moves on to the World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia in two weeks. 

IranIran won the Greco-Roman team title at the U20 World Championships. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)



BRONZE: Nihat MAMMADLI (AZE) df. Koto GOMI (JPN), 3-3 


BRONZE: Seyed SOHRABI (IRI) df. Nestori MANNILA (FIN), 11-2

GOLD: Gurban GURBANOV (AZE) df. Alexandru SOLOVEI (MDA), 4-0

BRONZE: Irfan MIRZOIEV (UKR) df. Igor BOTEZ (ROU), 7-6




BRONZE: Rohit DAHIYA (IND) df. Ruslan ABDIIEV (UKR), 8-7 (via cautions)
BRONZE: Alperen BERBER (TUR) df. Fares GHALY (EGY), 9-1


BRONZE: Nurmanbet RAIMALY UULU (KGZ) df. Luka KATIC (SRB), 9-0